I have seen a considerable amount of science fiction television now and I think I can safely claim that Doctor Who is perhaps the most different science fiction serial that I have ever seen. Doctor Who is funny, which is very, very difficult to do with science fiction. I think only the British do it, Douglas Adams did it in the Hitchhikers Galaxy and Doctor Who is in the same vein, in places.
A Story is Just a Story
Almost all stories these days try to be realistic. That is works absolutely fine as long as you’re in the social-realistic genre. If you’re writing about the oppression of the tribal people in India or the miserable life of Dalits, it works marvelously. In fact, the more realistic your writing, the more powerful it tends to be because it really is reality that it seeks to represent.
But when you do the same thing with science fiction and fantasy, you run into trouble. Well, not trouble exactly, because people have done it very nicely and are still doing it. Take Star Trek for example. When Star Trek was initially produced, Gene Roddenbury made sure that every single LED on the set had a well defined (albeit fictional) function. The ‘authenticity’ achieved through such meticulousness is what takes the show through.
But not everyone can do it or likes to do it. That is when science fiction becomes near-pulp and looks like nothing more than a nerds fantasy.
Doctor Who, however, is supremely conscious of the fact that it is just a story. No effort is really made to bring authenticity to the story. The Doctor travels in a time ship that looks like a police box. To make his ship work he has to push archaic levers, valves and pistons. He carries something called the screwdriver that can open any sort of lock. He carries a psychic paper that shows you whatever it is that you want to see. When the Doctor is asked – You took me back in time. What if I kill my grandfather and am never born? – he just chuckles and replies – Are you planning to? No, says the questioner and the Doctor shrugs and walks away.
And the viewer immediately realizes that the Doctor is just that, a story. There is not much sense in questioning and nitpicking about the plot details. Instead the mind is left free to perceive what the story wants to say behind the plot – be it the problem of increasing traffic in big cities in Gridlock or the nature of human religious beliefs in Satan Pit.
My best loved episodes of Doctor Who are metafictional in nature. In 2006 series there is an episode in a group of individuals is investigating the Doctor’s appearances through history. These individuals meet together because of their interest in the Doctor. They start hanging out together, socializing and also end up falling in love. This mirrors what real Doctor Who fans in the real world will do. Fans come together at conventions, start socializing because of common interests and yes, many of them do end up getting married. This episode was lovely in the way it recognizes how fiction impacts society and then took it up to make it into another interesting fictional episode. This episode shows how fiction is in conversations with the society and with other fiction.
This episode also reveals how fictional characters become cultural heroes. Indeed, anything that has gone on for three decades is bound to become a culture in itself. Indeed, Doctor Who is very much part of British culture and art. Many references in literature I’m able to get only now that I have seen the show. Just like Star Trek has a huge cultural impact in America.
* Doctor Who